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Death Memoirs: Why The Grave Subject Sells So Well


At age 36 Paul Kalanithi, a brilliant neurosurgeon, was just finishing his training when he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He decided to write about his illness and about grappling with mortality. His memoir, titled "When Breath Became Air," debuted last week and was immediately a bestseller. Dr. Kalanithi did not live to see it published. "When Breath Became Air" is one of many books written about dying that is finding an audience. "The Last Lecture" by Randy Pausch was also a bestseller, as was "Tuesdays With Morrie" by Mitch Albom. Writer and critic Michelle Dean was struck by the popularity of these books. And in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper, she asked - why do we keep being drawn to this subject? She joins us from our studios in New York. Michelle, thanks for being with us.

MICHELLE DEAN: No problem.

MARTIN: What's the answer? Why do we keep coming back to these very personal narratives about dying?

DEAN: I think there are really a couple of reasons. One is the gravity of the subject. There's a certain seriousness and gravitas that attaches to somebody who is facing the end of their life. I also think, though, that there are a couple of social factors that are working here above and beyond the subject.

MARTIN: Like what?

DEAN: One of them is social media, in the sense that social media has transformed the experience of illness in this country. And my sense is that - as a critic is that you can see that people go online to find information about their disease and often to find support because people who are ill can actually interact with each other online in a way where, in a former era, they would have been isolated by their illness. And so sharing these personal stories has become a part and parcel of the American experience of illness in a way that it probably wasn't before.

MARTIN: And, you know, death, and dying, it is the universal experience, you could say. Yet each of these of stories - and I'm someone who counts myself in this group of people who kind of - I can't stop reading them. I find myself really drawn to these very intimate narratives. And they are each unique.

DEAN: There is a certain uniqueness to each experience, also some commonalities. And I feel that what gives these stories their power is the universal themes that they touch on rather than the particularities of their individual experiences.

MARTIN: Is there an inherent optimism that you can find in these stories?

DEAN: I think actually that the aspect of posthumous publication is where a lot of people find the hope in that it suggests that this person was able to find some kind of deeper meaning in facing their mortality and then was able to convey their deeper meaning to other people. And that's the inspirational part of it and the part that kind of puts these books in a similarly self-help, kind of religious space.

MARTIN: You wrote that these memoirs - and I'm quoting you now - "Hold out the promise that you, too, will be able to cope once the eye of Sauron falls on you." Is this true for you?

DEAN: You know, it's funny because when you read things as a critic you're mostly thinking about their larger implications, and what often happens is you don't really think about yourself. But of course, almost anybody who writes at all is drawn to the articulation of experience - right? - and finds that inspirational, in a way, no matter what. So these books have a way of inspiring.

MARTIN: That's writer and critic Michelle Dean. She spoke with us from our studios in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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